All thirty-three passengers on the bus were strangely quiet, no one talked about how hot the weather was or the recent increase in the fuel price, no one even talked about the new virus that was spreading fast. As strange as it may seem, the children too were numb, except the two-year-old girl, who sat on her mother's feet and munched groundnut. She would sometimes tilt her head to the side every two to three minutes and make eye contact with Dauda. This whole situation did not only make Dauda readjust on the floor uncomfortably, but it also made him hold his mouth together and swallow his own spit, he did not have breakfast before leaving the house.
After about three and a half hours into the trip, the quietness on the bus became a problem for Dauda. It made the journey seem extremely long, coupled with the fact that he was seated at the feet of a man he would later know as Alhaji. On that sunny Tuesday afternoon in June, Dauda sat inside a rusty bus as it made its way through the desert. Inside it, with him, were men, women, and other children, all artfully arranged. The men to the left, the women to the right, and the children on the floor. The green bus looked haggard, and frequently made quirky sounds as a subtle way of protesting, probably because it was tired of making the same journey over and over again.
Alhaji kept thrusting his snow coloured tasbih, occasionally he would pause to adjust his legs, and this irritated Dauda greatly, he hissed and grumbled under his breath each time Alhaji’s legs hit his hands. What infuriated Dauda the most was the fact that he had to sit between Alhaji's legs and breathe in the smell of his buttocks. It was not a pleasant smell. As they journeyed, Dauda attempted to sing in his mind as a conscious effort to forget, an attempt to not remember Alhaji and a deliberate attempt to ignore the fact that he was running away from Kano, from his master; Mallam Danko. Everything in his life was going well until yesterday when he heard Fatimah, the short woman with a loud mouth who sold kerosene at the back of the mosque, discuss with her friend. He heard her say: "You see this boy wey dem dey call Dauda, his parents’ dey Mali, and he dey suffer here for Kano, he dey beg for money." He pretended not to hear and focused on the rich man in purple kaftan he was begging for alms from, but he knew what he would do, he would journey to Mali to find his parents.
The next morning, he made sure he woke up before the other boys, carefully found his way out of the hut while the other boys lay scattered on the bare floor sleeping, placed his Ankara on his unwashed body, and tiptoed out of the hut. The torn Ankara he wore was the only piece of clothing he owned and with the many tears and holes in it, it could easily pass as a rag to another boy of his age. He left the hut quietly and made his way into this shabby bus. Before he boarded, no one in the motor park asked him why he was going to Mali, no one even asked why he was travelling alone, in fact, he wasn't used to people pausing to ask him questions, he was used to people stopping to chase him away. On his way to the motor park, he prayed a silent prayer in his mind for no one to chase him, and thankfully, no one did. So now, his only regret was the fact that he had to sit between the foul-smelling legs of Alhaji. He could not complain, the bus was free for children, especially children with frail figures like him.
He sat on the floor, in between Alhaji's legs determined, he had had enough, he had spent eleven years of his life eating people’s leftovers at restaurants, roaming the streets, begging for alms, and handing over all his proceeds to Malam Danko every night. Mallam Danko was the only father figure he knew. Oftentimes he wished Mallam Danko was another person because the way the Mallam’s legs banged the floor whenever he walked into the room left a sharp pain in Dauda’s throat, his brown moustache which no one ever dared to look at made Dauda shiver, and the whip he tossed left and right with his hands every time he addressed the boys gave him sleepless nights.
Truth be told, Mallam Danko could whip anyone to stupor, especially the boys who used the money inside their begging bowls to buy food for themselves without informing the Mallam. Mallam Danko would hit them till blood gushed out of their back, Dauda’s heart raced each time he watched, and Mallam Danko made him watch, he made all the boys watch. Dauda detested the sight of blood, it irritated him and it made him feel like throwing up, but he dared not complain. So he decided he would be content, he would be fine with leftovers at restaurants, he wouldn't want to cross the line with the Mallam, but everything changed the day he heard Fathima speak about his parents.
Honestly, the day he heard Fatimah and her friend's conversation was the happiest day of his life, that same day, he also heard that his parents used him as collateral for the debt they owed the Mallam. This made him more determined to endure the moist below of Alhaji, who kept bringing phlegm out of his mouth every second. He would endure because it was nothing compared to living with Mallam Danko. He began to sing a song softly. The song the children in the street sang whenever they saw him and the other boys begging. He sang the song as a means to escape:
"ka ga wannan yaron,
yana rokon abinci,
ka ga rigar da ta ƙazanta,
bai da takalmi,
ka ga wannan yaron da datti"
He sang slowly and quietly, and the song helped, because, in those few minutes, he forgot about Alhaji’s smelling buttocks and the mystery of his life.
He was enjoying the escape the song brought, when the bus abruptly hit a stone and everyone including Dauda came back to consciousness. The bus was disorganised for a few minutes as the passengers screamed at the driver: "can't you see?", "Why you dey drive like drunk man?", “wannan direban mahaukaci ne”, "I have marked this man's face, never again will I enter his bus", “mu dai kawai muyi addu'a Allah ya kiyaye lafiya". So many words were flying around, especially from the women. The driver pretended not to hear them and he went on swinging his head, humming to the song playing on the radio. After a series of talk here and there, and no response from the driver, the women retired back to their silence, and Dauda became bored again.
He decided to play a trick on anyone who made eye contact with him, he would look them in the eye without blinking. His main target was the two-year-old girl nibbling groundnut. He promised himself he would yell “mahaukaci” if the girl made eye contact with him again, but no one looked him in the eye, not even the girl. Then, in the flash of a moment, something on Alhaji's feet pulled his attention, it was a thousand naira note, it lay there crumpled and abandoned. By the time Dauda saw it, Alhaji’s legs were dangerously close to the note, he was about to step on it. Dauda had never held a thousand naira note in his life. He tried to look away, but he just could not. After about ten minutes, he stretched his legs in a way to suggest he was tired and needed a good stretch, he reached for the money, grabbed it swiftly and adjusted. He thought about how clever he was, and this brought a grin to his face. He began to think about what he would do with the money, he wondered how big a thousand naira is. Will he be able to buy a car? A house? Or just food?
He was brought back to consciousness by the screams in the bus. At first, it didn't make sense to him, but as he became more conscious, he knew they were screams of "thief!" thief!" barawo!" “barawo!”. He pondered on how a thief could be inside the bus, with the way everyone's face looked so innocent. Then came a loud bang on his head, the bus had stopped. "As you small reach, you dey thief money" came the words of a man in his mid-twenties who wore haggard jeans and a dirty shirt that read "no pain no gain". His lips were black, he had removed his cap due to the heat in the bus and he held it in his hands. Dauda remembered the one thousand naira, did they see him? Did they know? He fell on the floor and started to cry and beg, but it all went into deaf ears.
Now everyone had alighted from the bus. The women still separate from the men and the children in a corner, squinted their eyes due to the harshness of the desert sun. "My boy, why you thief my money?" asked Alhaji. Until then, Dauda did not even know the money belonged to Alhaji. “Sorry sir" "Sorry sir" he began to say with his head down, his face soaked in tears. He was not trained to lie, he was not even trained to steal. Begging was okay if it was given willingly. He thought of Mallam Danko and what he would think of the situation he had gotten himself into. Mallam Danko would be so furious. He would beat him until blood came out from his back as he did to those boys, he would be disappointed. What about his parents whom he had never met? What would they make of it if they find out that he stole on his way to meet them? It was the first time he had ever taken what wasn't his, all he could do was plead and beg, but no one was having any of that.
The bus driver gradually moved close to Dauda, he pulled him up and placed his hand on his shoulder to stroke him. This act made Dauda freeze, because, before that time, no one had ever touched him. Not even the Mallam or his fellow Almajiri boys. The driver's stroke was not only strange but uncomfortable, because he wore a straight face. A face that was not in any way sympathetic. After a few taps, the driver started to speak: "boy, you know how it is, stealing is bad, it is haram, you can't ride with us again" the driver said while adjusting his belt buckle, he talked without any sign of sympathy. Upon hearing this, Dauda tossed himself on the ground again and began to cry, he started to plead: "Where I go go?" "Only sand dey this place" ”Yi hakuri”
Truth be told, the closest thing was the white sand on the ground. If they left him, he would wander aimlessly in the desert. He pressed a little further: "How I go reach house?" "What about my mama and papa wey I dey find?" He rolled his frail body on the floor pleading. Dauda brought out the naira note and pleaded with Alhaji to take back his money. "Better stand up boy, not only would we leave you here, we would have to cut your left thumb," said a lanky man in a neatly pressed grey suit in the background. This made Dauda wail even more.
Upon hearing this, Alhaji began to beg on behalf of Dauda, he pleaded that Dauda would not do it anymore, his face near to tears, he held Dauda's hands in solidarity, but it all went to deaf ears. Only a few minutes after, a machete the driver pulled out from under his seat penetrated Dauda’s left thumb. His scream was so loud it could wake the bodies in the cemetery. Alhaji upon looking at the driver’s blood-stained hands, the remorseless faces of the people in the background, knew it was the end of the journey for him. He could not leave Dauda alone.
Alhaji promised to take Dauda home, “from today, you don be my son, I go carry you go school.'' he said. Dauda did not even have enough strength to argue, he just stared at Alhaji blanky. He was looking for his parents anyway, and he found one at the lowest point in his life.